Sean Steinour

By John Packett, RTA Contributing Writer

Sean Steinour grew up with a tennis court in his backyard in Vineland, N.J., where he and his older brother, Scott, traded ground strokes and used to have some pretty competitive sibling matches.

That rivalry and the proximity of the court helps explain why both of the Steinours became intricately involved in the game and continue to use their knowledge to teach others how to be successful on the court.

Sean Steinour brought his talents to Richmond in 1995 when he took a job as the head pro at Westwood Club, and before he left in 2012, he had won eight city singles championships, the most by anyone in the 100-year history of the tournament.

Steinour added three state hardcourt titles and several State Indoor and State Clay Court crowns to his long list of accomplishments.

Because of those achievements and his off-court contributions to the local game, Steinour will be inducted into the Richmond Tennis Hall of Fame, along with four others, during a banquet on Oct. 24 at the Westwood Club.

At one point, Scott Steinour was ranked No. 1 in New Jersey in the 16-under group and Sean was ranked No. 1 in the 14s. The Steinours were chosen as the Tennis Family of the Year for the Middle States area that same year {1985), according to Scott.

The backyard court was installed when Steinour was around four years old and was a “huge factor” in his tennis development, he said.

“I would wake up every day and see the court in my backyard and my dad [Sid] was teaching lessons,” Steinour said. “It was kind of an everyday thing. Of course, my dad and I would hit quite a bit. My brother and I started practicing and hitting together on a regular basis.

“We definitely wanted to beat each other. We were both pretty competitive.”

Steinour continued to work hard on his game and climbed up the junior ladder.

“It’s something I had from within,” he said. “I was competitive and I knew that I was developing and was pretty decent. So that was what I wanted to do. I was willing to sacrifice the time and doing other things to put the time into tennis.”

Steinour’s mother, Susie, would take him to junior tournaments both near and far.

“I went through years where I would play a certain level of tournaments and would lose quickly, first round, second round,” Steinour said. “Then, however long it took me at that certain level, whether a year or two, I would start winning those same tournaments.

“Then I would go to the next level and lose right away. But I was always able to conquer that next level. On the national level, I was never quite able to take over and start winning but I was very competitive [and highly ranked].”

Steinour eventually wound up at the University of North Carolina, where he played as high as No. 3 singles for the Tar Heels. After he finished at UNC, Steinour felt like his game reached another level.

“I think it was just experience. Learning more about myself and learning to trust my game and just gaining more confidence,” he said. “I got to a point where I believed that I could play at a high level. Unfortunately, that was maybe past where I was playing on a serious level, making it a career.”

The 44-year-old tried his luck on the professional circuit for about a year and a half before turning to teaching.

Shortly thereafter, Steinour contacted his friend Trip Baisden, who was the director of tennis at Westwood, about a job at the club. But that wasn’t the main reason he decided to come to Richmond to start his teaching career.

“I knew I could take a certain class there,” said Steinour. “It was a Dale Carnegie course that was a gift to me from my uncle when I graduated from college. My uncle owed a lot of his success to [the course], which was how to influence people.

“That [class] was the reason why I sought out a position in Richmond. Trip was there and he had an opportunity for me. It was just timing. That was my next move. To take that step. Teach tennis and see where it took me.”

Not long after he arrived in Richmond, Steinour began to dominate the local tournament scene.

Steinour beat Fredrik Eliasson, Virginia Commonwealth University’s No. 1 player, in the 1996 final and won the next two titles of the annual competition at Byrd Park. His experiences in college and on the satellite circuit molded his solid baseline game.

“After playing and traveling all over the place, all that combined put me in a certain spot where I felt like I could compete with just about anybody,” he said. “I was definitely playing at a high level in the late ‘90s and into the 2000s. Those were all really good years.”

Steinour lost in the final from 1999-2001, then captured the next four in a row. In all, he reached an amazing 10 consecutive finals, stretching from 1996-2005. He missed the 2006 tournament because of a wedding and won his final title in 2007 over Brent Wilkins.

Steinour reached the final again in 2008, where he lost to long-time rival Carl Clark and making it 12 times in a 13-year span that he made the title match. He lost a controversial semifinal to Martin Stiegwardt in 2009, the last year he played in the event.

“It was something I always wanted to do,” he said. “I felt like it was supporting Richmond tennis in general. They talked about putting prize money into it, like they do in a lot of the other state tournaments. But it wasn’t that big of a deal to me. I was still going to play, no matter what.

“I was very pleased to pull off that many victories. It was pretty phenomenal.”

The Davenport city tournament didn’t have prize money until this year, when Hunter Koontz received $500 for claiming the title.

“I just looked at it as an awesome event,” said Steinour. “Down in the middle of Richmond in Byrd Park. That’s just a really cool venue to play, and anybody can come out and watch. I think it was always pretty solid for the most part.”

Steinour’s biggest rival was Clark, who beat him twice in the city final and once in the state tournament final at Raintree. Steinour gained some revenge by defeating Clark twice in the state title match at Raintree.

“He was a big guy and had a big serve,” said Clark, who is now the director of tennis at Hallbrook Country Club outside Kansas City, Mo. “I would say he had the heaviest ground strokes you would come across. He was just solid. He didn’t give you anything.

“The first time I played him was in the hardcourts [at Raintree] when I first came into town. He beat me around pretty good. We became good friends, and I knew right then and there I had to figure out what I had to do in order to beat this guy.

“I had never played such a powerful baseliner with a big serve. Somebody who could really bring it.”

When Steinour left Westwood, he took a job as the director of tennis at the Peninsula Club in Lake Norman, N.C., just outside Charlotte. He lives there with his wife, Lee Mahaffey, and sons, Trent 9, and Gabriel, 7.

Steinour no longer rules the courts at Byrd Park but he left behind an exceptional legacy and a record that may never be broken.